It is a relief when Collyn Ahart talks. What she says about adventures is like hearing someone finally lay out a lot of unvoiced thoughts in my head. It joins up some dots. None of this is what I expected when I first headed to East London to talk to her. We meet in the morning when layering for the cold weather is still confusing much of London and it’s certainly an error that my naked handlebars still need their wraps put on. But Pelicci’s, the famous little greasy spoon on Bethnal Green Road is warm. They do a mean hash brown and the owner proudly shows us some photos of his kid.
We talk about modern female adventures, why outdoors wear is shit, and why it’s okay to want to care about that. And it’s brilliant.
Collyn Ahart was one of the first people that made me stop and think more deeply about women, culture, brands and sport. She has some smart shit to say, and it is never patronising, always insightful. She’s a thinker and she’s a doer.
A couple of years back, she was a Rapha Brand Ambassador, did ad strategy for Nike Women and held a Do Lecture on pursuing passion. Between writing her own incredibly readable pieces on cycling*, culture and women’s marketing (and the odd not-quite-so-sports-focused pieces) she said a lot of smart things about women, advertising, and what drives people around sport. It was around this time, when I started working on social media for Nike Running, I fell in love with one of her articles: a really interesting read that hit the nail on the head about what was going on across a few of the major brands. A smart snapshot of how trends were changing. and you can find another equally spot on article around the evolution of activewear (specifically ‘goodbye ‘women’s sport’ as a category) written this week.
(*This article is also the reason I turned to Rapha the second I had to buy any cycling kit)
Marketing life aside; you’ll usually find her outside. Expect to find her cycling with Olympian boyfriend Dan, or running with Team GB cross-country runner Jessica Andrews out on a photo shoot, as she proceeds to do the week after we chat – or starting her own company, Bowndling, which is the real cause for our first proper hello in the first place. Bownding is her brand new ‘adventurewear’ company that Collyn launched a few weeks earlier, and the reason why we’re meeting over breakfast.
For an hour we skip any agenda and shovel beans. We talk about modern female adventures, why outdoors wear is shit, and why it’s okay to want to care about that. And it’s brilliant.
Collyn’s the kind of kid that grew up playing in the mud wearing a pink dress, and never stopped loving that way of life: “I grew up in the woods. I grew up mountain biking and skiing and cycling and shit. I grew up on a tiny little island surrounded by boats and fishing.
My mum has this story. I used to go fishing after school. I was a weird kid. I loved really girly outfits but I would go fishing after school. She said she was driving home after school. There was this big lake about a mile and a half from our house. Walking distance. She said she was driving home one evening, the sun was going down and as she’s driving along there’s this little girl in a pink mini skirt with a bucket and a fishing rod, carrying a stick skewered with a bunch of fish. She was like ‘yeah, that’s my daughter!’ I think I remember the skirt: a pink frilly thing I wore from the age of about eight to 12. That sums me up in a nutshell.”
Perhaps not too much has changed.
Claire: I love adventures. Perhaps nothing typically ‘epic’ but for example day trips on a bike that still feel a bit daunting. It started the first time I rode to Brighton – I’d been wanting to do it for ages and finding people that wanted to do it was tough. Everyone thought it was hard and it seemed like a bit of a terrifying thing in its own small way – this total unknown. I did it, came back and thought ‘that was awesome. And everyone could do that.
But getting the information was hard. The sites were all written by middle-aged men with a bunch of bike-close-ups, some dodgy, unhelpful maps, and some step-by-step instructions. It seemed like it should be easier.
“You don’t have to be outdoorsy to be outside.”
Collyn: “I used to work for Rapha. I spent a couple of years there. If you’re going to get more women buying product you need to get more women into the sport. You have to understand what’s stopping them. It’s so many little things – so many technical bits, the kit, the time, or the money. Unlike running, cycling is one of those time-consuming things. You’ll be away for like six hours and be like ‘How did that happen?’ So I kind of brought a lot of that learning: that you have to remove those barriers.
With Bowndling we say adventurewear. It’s a very general term, but I wanted to remove the singular definition of adventure. I think outdoors apparel in general has got a bit of a stigma of being ‘epic’ actually. That you look like you’re going on a trek, or you look like you have to be climbing a mountain. That’s not how a lot of people think of themselves, and that’s okay. That’s what we want to say to people: you don’t have to be climbing mountains in a literal sense to be climbing a fucking mountain.
“Sporting goods. If something is really super uncool, that’s really sporting goods.“It’s changing though. There’s a really young – I wanna call it ‘Hipsters go camping’ culture of Polar and all that. It’s great. I really like what they’ve done as a brand. They’ve removed a massive cool stigma of going outside. Before it was what your Mum did or your Dad did, and you had to go to an outdoors store or a sporting goods shop.
I grew up in the States. There’s a term that kids out there have: Sporting goods. If something is really super uncool, that’s really sporting goods.
I think I bought a couple of pieces of Polar when they first launched. I felt like ‘here’s a backpack that I would wear’ and there’s something to be said for that: actually making stuff that people want to be seen wearing – there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s what makes me crazy about the outdoors industry. I’d always feel ashamed for wanting to look good. There’s always this idea of outdoors wanting to look ugly: you should not care about wanting to look good and you’re just a silly girl if you do. I don’t think you could find a single woman on any mountain who doesn’t want to look good. I don’t care who she is – if she says she doesn’t, she’s either lying or she’s in a very small segment of women (and that’s okay – there’s no shame in that either). But this babble of what you’re supposed to be while you’re outside. You don’t have to be anything.
We’ve all got that ugly coat that we stick under the bed. There’s nothing wrong with ugly raincoats and yet there’s everything wrong with ugly raincoats.
“The silhouette in outdoors wear hasn’t changed in thirty years.”
Those two industries, the outdoor industry and the media/beauty/fashion world, are at odds with each other. I think a lot of women like fashion and that’s okay. I feel like why can’t an outdoors wear brand look as good as fashion and still be an outdoors brand.”
Claire: Adventures can be so good that you forget about what you’re wearing, but wouldn’t it be good to wake up excited about wearing the clothes you’re about to put on and take. And that excitement being part of the joy of the entire thing.
Here, I’m reminded back to my teenage days of working in a ski store; in winter, selling people the latest ski gear, and in summer, selling expensive pack-macs. Neither of which saw women come out of the changing room, very rarely saying ‘you know, I can’t wait to wear this.’
“I don’t care about sexy, I care about cool. Look at Acne.”But the idea of having a choice about what that ubiquitous shapeless ski jacket looked like? It barely existed.
Claire: Do you think it’s the same for men though? Everyone gets their under-the-bed jacket and that’s just part of it?
Collyn: “I think LOADS exist for men, actually, and that’s why I did this in one small way. Part of it is outdoorsyness and being rugged is kind of a masculine sign of status. A lot of guys aspire to look like they’re going on a trek and it taps into manliness and blah blah blah. It’s not unheard of for fashion brands and outdoors brands to go after that look.
But there’s a difference in silhouette. Women’s silhouettes in fashion change incredibly quickly. The silhouette in outdoors wear hasn’t changed in thirty years.
Go to an outdoors show. They’re fascinating. (There’s one in Munich at the end of Jan.) All the international brands come – North Face has a stand about a mile long. It’s just full of those brands. Goretex have a long stand where they show all the major brands that they’re suppliers to. So they show a jacket from North Face, Patagonia, Rab, Adidas Outdoors, Nike, everybody. They show the men’s classic winter raincoat from every line.
“The outdoors and the activewear industries refuse to take me and my multiple values seriously. The outdoors industry hasn’t changed its silhouette in 30 years. I am expected to look either like an 19 year old hipster snowboard chick, slightly dumpy, or like a sexy billionaire snow-bunny. I’m none of these. If I go swimming, I’m expected to either sit by the side of the pool (and thus be fashionable), or wear a speedsuit that has zero taste and does nothing for my figure.” – Collyn, Activewear evolution
And you could probably swap the logo, and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And women’s silhouettes are the same. Unchanging.
A lot of that is to do with material suppliers. When we started working on what fabrics we were going to use, we obviously started working on Goretex. Because ‘ah Gortex, that’s what you use because Gortex!’ And very quickly we went off Goretex because there are lots of different amazing ones. It works really well in really climates, but in moderate climates it’s one of the worst fabrics. This is the geekery of fabric technology I’ve been learning about am only just coming to really understand: it’s fascinating. But Goretex has a brand and the brand is incredibly powerful.
Claire: Tell me about Bowndling’s look.
Collyn: “If you think about women in their 30s – that’s who we’re really speaking to: women in their 30s, and 40s. There’s not much that looks super cool. I don’t care about sexy, I care about cool. Making silhouettes that women feel really comfortable in and really cool in. It’s a dangerous line between comfortable and frumpy. But there are a million fashion brands who’ve managed to do cool relaxed clothing. Look at Acne, look at so many Scandinavian and German brands. They do that cool, relaxed fit and they look really trendy. They don’t look frumpy. They don’t look Mumsy.”
Claire: How did you start designing it?
Collyn: “To be honest, I went to my own wardrobe and said what do I wear all the time. The stuff I can’t throw away or give to charity or put on eBay. The stuff I go back to year after year. The favourite swim suit that starts to disintegrate because it’s the one swim suit you always wore. And it falls apart because they were always made terribly.”
Claire: This is true. I still swim in the same Adidas swim suit I had when I was 16.
Collyn: “So I started looking at those silhouettes I loved, and looking at what are the classic silhouettes are in womenswear. Partly because I don’t think that hyper feminine silhouettes are classic for women.
Where the real start of the design process was fabrics. Learning about them – and the fabric technology has come so far and there’s so much you can do. One you understand fabrics, you can start building up the garment.
Claire: So sans Gortex you were free?
Collyn: “Exactly. It completely liberated the process. We could say ‘we don’t have to make a form-fitting silhouette’, though I don’t think we ever really wanted too. But it becomes a lot more fun when you can think there are waterproof materials that don’t have to look a certain way.
Also – if you can buy a raincoat with one silhouette, why do you need to buy the same silhouette raincoat the next year? I think that’s both a good and a bad thing. I don’t want to encourage people to buy things every couple of months. You don’t need to buy a new one every year. That’s the thing: I want to create classic pieces that you buy once and keep for ten years.
Claire: So when you were growing up were you born into a family big on adventures?
Collyn: “Yeah, very much. I feel very lucky to be born into the family. They were both proper dirt-baggers. My mother was part of a bra-burning family of the 1970s. My dad was really into mountaineering and climbing. They were both really into skiing – my Mum actually taught my Dad how to ski. In our garage at home we’ve still got Chouinard branded climbing gear. (Yvon Chouinard was the founder of Patagonia, before it became Patagonia. There was a climber who had a terrible accident, using Chouinard branded gear and they shut the business down and re-branded as Patagonia.) I mean, I wouldn’t USE any of it now, but it’s there and I’m like DAD EBAY IT. THERE’S YOUR NEST EGG.
But I grew up with that. They still use all the old stuff; this beautiful 60s and 70s outdoor kit. A lot of the stuff that Bowndling is bringing out over the next year is inspired by this.
We’ve done a down coat. Actually, we’ve done a couple of down pieces. But the main down coat is inspired by my Dad’s old down coat. I mean, it’s different, but it’s inspired by it. It’s got a down blanket feel of a coat but inspired by that 70s vibe, even though it doesn’t look retro at all. There’s something about it. We’ve done this vintage ribbon down the zip protector that runs down the inside of the coat. It’s basically the same as what’s on the inside of my Dad’s coat; that zip protector that you don’t see that anymore. In the 70s they used to do that on all the down to protect it from catching.
It’s funny cause all of the girls in the studio: we joke that it’s all jackets and jumpers stolen from boyfriends and flatmates. So the Bowndling cashmere fleece I’m wearing was inspired by the stolen jumpers. When I go home I always steal my Dad’s old jumper. There’s a little bit of a vibe of that in our stuff.”
“Are they into adventures?”
“Not in the traditional sense. Everyone likes going outside.”
Claire: How big is your team?
Collyn: “There are five of us.
We have Lani. She’s head of operations and used to work at Net-a-Porter. She looks after all of our stock, all of our customer services. She’s amazing. She’s Australian.
There’s Maya who’s our graphic designer. She used to work at Maharishi. She’s British and super super talented. Everyone’s quite young, actually. Lani’s 22, Maya’s 23.
Hanneke; who is our designer and pattern cutter. She’s South African. she’s amazing. I love working with her. She was kind of employee number one.
Then we have Emily. Emily is our paid intern, and she’s amazing. She’s Japanese and she’s kind of a photographer/illustrator/designer of general sorts. She can do everything from 3D retail type of things to merchandising design, to illustrations for us that we’ll be using further down the road, and she writes beautifully in Japanese.
And that’s our little team. We’ve got a tiny little studio that’s the size of this restaurant.”
Claire: Are they into adventures?
Collyn: “Not in the traditional sense. Everyone likes going outside.
Emily’s a really big skier. Hannuka’s a really good cyclist. She worked before (she’s about my age – a little bit younger than me) as a scuba diving instructor in the Caribbean. Before that she took a job working a restaurant in Dubai for a year and she’s an amazing woman of the world. She met her husband in Cape Town and now lives here. So she’s travelled a lot in the true sense of adventure.
Lani is really interesting. When she was in University she paid her way by running a shop online that was basically selling t-shirts and surf themed paraphernalia to Bondi Beach girls. She’s just a complete self-starter.
We’ve got a policy in the office. Well, it’s not really a policy but I’ve decided I want it to be a thing. Everyone gets normal holiday time but in addition to that, if people want to go away for a few days at a time and do an adventure (that we can use for our marketing, too) then they can just go and do that. So Maya and Lani – they’re actually really good friends as well – they just booked it yesterday. they were booking tickets to go to Norway. They’re just doing a little adventure shoot. They’re just going off – because I want to encourage that. Of course we should do that. So, they’re not going to be doing any epic shit, but they are going to Norway and they’re going to go and hike and see things an explore Norway. I think that’s awesome.”
Claire: So what other pieces are coming up for Bowndling in 2015 that you’re excited about?
Collyn: “What am I not excited about? We’ve done swimwear which is coming out in April 2015.”
Claire: That’s great because the options for beautiful, practical swimwear are really shit in the UK.
Collyn: “It’s going to be really affordable too. Swimwear’s a thing there’s usually a massive markup on. There doesn’t need to be one.
We’ve been proto-typying a few things that are really technical. [Collyn pulls out her phone and scrolls through a few photos] [Swipes to next photo] This was designed from a fisherman’s jacket, quite loose fitting, designed to be layered. So, under this she’s wearing a primaloft jacket. It’s just designed to look like a cool jacket, but it’s beautiful and soft.
[Swipes to next photo] This is our sport rain jacket. It’s a slightly more active wear – I’d wear it for hiking but it balls-up super small. This is something I’m really really stoked about. I think it looks really good.
Between swim and those two or three pieces those are definitely what I’m most excited about.”
Claire: I love that you’ve made a fisherman’s jacket. I’ve got old memories of walking around Cornwall in a bright yellow sou’wester getting absolutely rained on. It was an important part of my childhood.
Collyn: “But what we’ve done instead of the rubber, which isn’t very breathable – you’d never do anything except stand around in the rain – we’ve used a really technical fabric. It’s actually Japanese. It’s very sculpted and thick so it has the same kind of effect but it’s super technical. It’s breathable. It has that heavy weight look but it’s lightweight.
I have a fisherman’s jacket that I absolutely love and I always feel a little bit like UH! I worry what the thing smells like! With a lot of the technical stuff, it’s easy to care for. 95% of our stuff’s completely machine washable. This is the way people live. We don’t want it to be this ‘other’ kind of product that you’d never actually wear to go hiking. Whereas ours; we were on a shoot we’d been like ‘go climb a tree so we can take some pictures of you!’ to the model. She was like scooting along a log and was like ‘I’m so worried I’m going to rip it!’ We said ‘it doesn’t matter! It’s a tech material.’
And I love that; we were like no don’t worry! You’re not going to fuck up the clothing because you play hard.’ My goal is that you don’t feel like something is so precious that you can’t do anything in it, but the quality is still so good and it still looks good.”
And there you have it. They might not be pink dresses (styles changes, alas) but they’re clothes ready to go out and play in the mud with.
Bowndling’s just dropped its prices, too. Go explore @ bowndling.com.